Costa Mesa, California—Linda Duffy takes her job seriously. As the human resources director for Costa Mesa, California-based Ceradyne Inc., an $18-million company that manufactures and markets advanced technical ceramics for applications ranging from orthodontic brackets to bullet-proof vests, she has championed such causes as in-stilling a safer work environment and documenting an insurance company’s bad faith. In the fourteen years of Duffy’s employment, the results of her efforts have totaled somewhere around $4-5 million in "hard" cash and an unknown amount of "what-could-have-happened" money—serious cash.
But, in spending the day with Linda, I learned she’s anything but serious. This became evident the minute I walked into her office. My first observations were of a punching-bag clown and Velcro dart board stationed just outside her door. Tacked on the door is a poster from Jack-in-the-Box® restaurants depicting a large group of people and the words "Find Jack." Inside the office, among the piles of papers, stacks of books and general workplace clutter, lay more Jack-in-the-Box toys, along with plastic spiders, sports memorabilia and family photos. A book titled "301 Ways to Have Fun at Work," sits atop others on the floor.
As Linda’s assistant clears out space in Linda’s office for me and my photographer to sit, Linda says laughingly: "I wish I could tell you my office didn’t always look like this. But it does."
Making the morning rounds.
It’s a Friday morning and Fridays are somewhat slow for HR at Ceradyne as most plant employees work four ten-hour days (which they’ve been doing for five years), with Friday being their day off. Nonetheless, before Linda and I travel the eight or so feet from the front door, through the reception area, and to her office, an employee approaches her asking for a 401(k) form. Then, before Linda can sit down or turn on her computer, her assistant informs her the mail merge they had attempted the day before failed. Linda calls the IS director, re-questing his assistance. He’s busy, but will assist shortly.
While she’s waiting, Linda grabs a bag of carrots and darts off to give them to her mother, Joanna Duffy, who’s an administrative secretary supporting the vice president/general manager and most of the production managers at the plant. Before returning to her office, Linda pops her head into a purchasing manager’s office to say hello. Back in the hallway, she passes Kathy Rayno, production control supervisor. "I need to talk to you," says Kathy. "I was just coming to find you. Follow me," replies Linda.
Kathy, who has been a supervisor for approximately one year, needs advice regarding an ex-employee who failed to contact work after getting in a car accident several months back. The employee now wants another job. "I try to advise her, but also educate her about the law, policies and so on," Linda says to me after. (Before the manager leaves, she and Linda discuss the manager’s recently purchased tickets for a baseball game, a passion of Linda’s. Her screen saver has the seating chart for the Anaheim Angels’ new stadium.)
Consultations are what fill most of Linda’s day now. It wasn’t always like this. The first five years Linda served as HR director (after having been promoted rapidly from personnel assistant to the top job), she spent much of her time handling paperwork. "The file cabinets lining the back wall of my office are filled with papers related to workers’ compensation and exposure-related lawsuits," says Duffy. Not because there were a lot of suits (only four employees in the history of the company have sued for exposure to chemicals) but because these cases are very paper-intensive.
Currently there are no employee suits pending, says Linda. Ceradyne no longer uses the chemical accused in most of the problems and, since 1986, the company has employed a full-time safety supervisor who reports to Linda.
With less paperwork to deal with, Linda now can spend more time being consultative, although administrative tasks also take up much of her time. Ceradyne uses an outside payroll service, but, Linda explains, HR inputs all information into, and maintains, four separate databases. The day I’m there with her, the task at hand is distributing information to employees regarding a new company-sponsored long-term disability plan.
IS shows up in Linda’s office to work on the mail-merge problem— which is related to the distribution of the LTD plan—while Linda is (finally!) listening to her voice messages and reading her e-mails. "The CFO likes the LTD," Linda yells out to her assistant, who sits in a cubicle just outside Linda’s office.
Leading her staff.
The weekly HR staff meeting occurs on Friday mornings. Linda’s staff consists of her assistant (technically a Human Resources Representative), the receptionist (who conducts some HR tasks), the Safety and Environmental Supervisor and his two assistants. Linda facilitates the conversation, learning from the staff what issues are pressing. Among other issues, Fernando Hernandez, the safety supervisor, informs Linda that his two assistants conducted their first respirator training the day before. Linda praises them both and tells them she’s proud of them. "How do you feel about it?" she asks them. They both beam with pride and say, "Good." Linda then goes back into consultant mode, advising her staff how to answer questions they may be asked during an upcoming ISO 9001 audit. The company had a preliminary audit in February, but the audit scheduled for May 4th is the "real thing. It’s our initial attempt at becoming certified, so wish us luck. This has been a big project," she says.
After some further discussion about work that needs to get done and about celebrations for Secretaries Day, Earth Day, Cinco de Mayo and Safety Month being planned (there’s that "fun" creeping out again!), the meeting adjourns.
The receptionist needs to speak with Linda privately. I wait outside while they talk. I’m invited back in after Linda finishes a phone call.
Taking a break.
Lunchtime for Linda and three to five of her co-workers is no standard mealtime. For this daily ritual, the tiny conference room where we sat just 20 minutes before for the staff meeting turns into a movie house/game room. Indeed, piled on the video stand next to a TV monitor and behind a stack of safety videos is a library of movies (mostly comedies, a good number being Monty Python flicks) and cartoons. A backgammon game is laid out on the conference table. Linda and her co-worker have been playing backgammon at lunch for what Linda says is probably 10 years. Today, they play and eat while watching "From Earth to the Moon." Each player wins a few games before they become engrossed in the movie and pack up the game.
Following up on tasks.
Linda spends most of her afternoon with IS trying to troubleshoot the computer/form/printer glitch that was preventing her from getting the LTD information to the staff. (The problem is solved at 4:00—the information would finally be distributed Monday.)
Fernando had questions about some workers’ compensation issues. (Just before lunch he had sent a worker to the doctor because of a minor injury.) Workers’ compensation is a topic Linda knows well. Hanging on the wall of her office is a plaque presented to her from the company president for her part in creating a safety-awareness culture, which has translated into mega-savings in workers’ compensation fees. In 1995, for example, Ceradyne was paying more than two and one-half times what it could have paid in premiums if the company’s safety record were "average" for its industry. Since 1989, however, the company has paid 29 percent less than it would have if its safety record were average. "I estimate that when our payroll was high, we were saving approximately $300,000 per year in premiums—and that’s right off the bottom line," says Linda. "HR is a profit center!"
Finding time for fun.
To relieve the stress of her computer problems, Linda engages in a squirt gun fight with her assistant. She also chats with a co-worker about an Easter Egg Hunt she had arranged earlier in the week.
A manager comes to Linda panicked about the possibility of losing a five year employee who’s one of the only trained inspectors for certain parts. The inspector had been offered another job for $1.50 an hour more. There is a dispute between this manager and another one, both of whom have an interest in the employee’s position. The dispute is about whether to give the inspector a counteroffer. The manager asks Linda for advice. Linda advises him to discuss it with the other manager to 1) get an understanding of why he doesn’t want to offer the inspector more money and 2) to have him explain how his department will support the other department short- and long-term if the inspector leaves. Recruitment and retention are serious issues for Ceradyne because the company’s manufacturing processes are unique.
Leaving the office (but not the job!).
Linda meets friends for dinner at 7:00 at a restaurant nearby. Even after hours, Linda remains the HR consultant. One of her dinner companions used to be her HR assistant. She has a new job as an HR manager for a computer firm, but is having problems with her new boss. The dinner companions brainstorm solutions, and Linda offers her friend some ideas. Although I’m not at the dinner (she tells me about it later) I would bet it wasn’t all serious. With Linda, fun is foremost.
Home at last.
Linda returned home in time to watch her favorite television show, "Homicide."
Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 69-72.